FOXBOROUGH, Mass. — Brandon Tate already has made an impact this season with two touchdowns on kickoff returns for the New England Patriots. Now he should get more of a chance as a receiver.
With Randy Moss traded to Minnesota and Deion Branch newly arrived in a deal with Seattle, the speedster whose past two seasons were ruined by knee injuries looms as a more prominent target Sunday against the Baltimore Ravens.
“We’ll see Sunday,” Tate said. “I’m ready. I’ve been ready for any opportunity.”
He took advantage of two of those when he returned second-half kickoffs for a 97-yard touchdown in the season opener and a 103-yard score in the fourth game.
Those who watched Tate at North Carolina shouldn’t have been surprised. He finished his career with an NCAA-record 3,525 combined kickoff and punt return yards even though he missed the last seven games of his senior year after tearing the anterior cruciate and medial collateral ligaments in his right knee.
But Patriots coach Bill Belichick had seen enough of him — despite just 46 catches in four years — to draft him in the third round in 2009.
“He played half the year down there in a pro offense,” Belichick said. “You could see him do some of the things we ask our players to do. And he did a very good job returning it. It was half a season, but I think the games you saw were good competitive games, high level of competition, and he was doing things more like an NFL receiver would do them than I would say a lot of other guys you would scout.
“So it wasn’t that bad, just, unfortunately, he got hurt.”
Then he got hurt again, a knee injury that limited him to two games last season.
“It was difficult,” Tate said, “but I’ve moved past last year.”
He has 11 catches for 135 yards this season, two more than Moss had with the Patriots, but started just two games.
One of those catches went for 14 yards, but he fumbled. Buffalo recovered and scored a touchdown on the subsequent drive, taking a 13-7 lead before losing 38-30.
But on the Patriots’ next offensive play after his fumble, Tate gained 5 yards on a reverse.
“It showed me the coaches have some trust in me and they believe in me,” he said. “I told the coach I’m sorry about (the fumble) but it happens in football. I told him I’ll bounce back. So he trusted me and I appreciate it.”
Ravens coach John Harbaugh saw Tate’s skills while scouting for the draft.
“We looked at him in the draft, and we liked him,” Harbaugh said. “I think he’s a speedy guy. He’s a game-breaking, potentially, type guy. He’s proven that already on special teams.
“It looks like he’s got good vision across the field. He can kind of pick the spot where a guy might be getting out of position a little bit. He does it really seamlessly. It’s not like he’s got to stop-start again. He’s very smooth, and he’s a quick accelerator.”
Oddly, Tate isn’t impressed with his own speed.
“I don’t really think I’m that fast, to tell you the truth,” he said. “I see it on film sometimes (and) everybody else will be like, ‘you’re going so fast,’ but it doesn’t look like it to me.”
It might look like it to Ravens cornerback Fabian Washington, although Tate isn’t the deep threat that Moss is.
“I don’t think they’re going to take as many shots (downfield) anymore,” Washington said. “But, they still have a receiver in Tate that’s a nice vertical threat, so I do expect them to throw deep balls, but just not as much.”
Tate has heard the talk that the Patriots lack a receiver who has proven he can beat receivers deep. He tries to ignore it.
“I don’t really feed into all that,” he said. “The only thing I worry about is what I could do to make this team better.”